Tag Archives: editing

The 2021 CIEP conference: Fiction line-editing essentials: Narrative distance

This year’s CIEP conference was held online, from 12 to 14 September. Attendees from all over the world logged on to learn and socialise with their fellow editors and proofreaders, and a number of delegates kindly volunteered to write up the sessions for us. Katherine Kirk reviewed Fiction line-editing essentials: Narrative distance, presented by Louise Harnby.

Near! Far!

Louise Harnby is one of the most helpful editors around, and her Switching to Fiction course will earn you two points towards CIEP membership upgrades. This year, conference attendees got a taste of that high-quality content with Louise’s fabulous introduction to narrative distance. In her session, she explained:

  • what narrative distance (or psychic distance) is
  • why it should be dynamic, not static
  • how problems with narrative distance connect to showing vs telling, info-dumping, head-hopping and other common pitfalls
  • how editors can show writers how to adjust narrative distance to make their writing stronger.

Discussed in more depth in The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, narrative distance is a stylistic tool that affects point of view, showing versus telling, and more. It’s all about the relationship between reader and character: how deep in the character’s head is the reader, and how connected are they to the character’s emotions? To understand narrative distance, editors should know about narrative perspectives and their effects. Second-person is creepily intimate, third-person objective has the widest narrative distance, and third-person omniscient may have some intimacy between the reader and narrator, if not the characters. Editors who want to learn more about these would get a lot out of the CIEP’s Introduction to Fiction Editing course.

Louise describes narrative distance as a continuum that readers can zoom in and out of. The level of intimacy should gently ebb and flow. When it leaps around, that’s where problems come in. Overreliance on a wide degree of narrative distance makes the writing static and can result in info-dumping (and pace-killing). Spending too long in an intimate distance, putting emotion before description and action, can feel sentimental and overblown. Jumping too far from one degree to another can be jarring, like shifting gears too fast. Head-hopping is where the perspective leaps abruptly from one character to another, and readers get confused or can’t invest in the character’s experience. Some authors might overuse filter words (noticed, watched, felt) to avoid head-hopping, but this adds a degree of distance between the immediacy of the experience and the reader.

Louise says editors should not be too prescriptive regarding narrative distance. Instead, we should use our instincts and acknowledge subjectivity. A small change that shifts the narrative distance can have a huge effect on pace, emotional impact, and characterisation. We can use techniques like:

  • free indirect speech
  • removing filter words and words like ‘suddenly’ or ‘instantly’
  • using characters’ full names
  • changing direct speech and thought to reported speech or thought.

Being aware of narrative distance helps editors with the flow of prose, the shifts of intimacy with a single narrative style, and shifts of viewpoint. It helps authors to know how and why to fix problems, and it helps readers to enjoy the story more. Within a day of Louise’s talk, I’d already applied it to my own work. I can’t wait to see the lightbulbs pop on over my clients’ heads when I explain narrative distance to them.

Katherine Kirk is a fiction editor who lives halfway up a volcano in Ecuador. She works on all types of fiction for adults, especially Science Fiction and Literary Fiction.

She also edits Tabletop Role-playing Game (TTRPG) content. Katherine spends far too much time on social media, and is an Intermediate Member of the CIEP.

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

The 2021 CIEP conference: Using Word styles

This year’s CIEP conference was held online, from 12 to 14 September. Attendees from all over the world logged on to learn and socialise with their fellow editors and proofreaders, and a number of delegates kindly volunteered to write up the sessions for us. Abi Saffrey reviewed Using Word styles, presented by Jill French.

Stylish editing

This session allowed people who have not yet completed the CIEP’s Word for Practical Editing course to benefit from Jill French’s calm and clear approach to explaining something that many editors, let’s be honest, are a bit bamboozled by.

Microsoft Word is packed with tools and functions that many editors never use, but styles are incredibly useful even when a client (or manager) does not ask for them to be applied to a document.

Jill explained that a style is a pre-set combination of font features (size, bold) and paragraph attributes (spacing, indents). Existing styles can be applied or amended using the Style section of the ribbon at the top of the Word window, or by expanding that into the Style Pane (by clicking on the little arrow in the bottom-right corner). As well as applying styles to text, it is possible to add ‘direct formatting’ using the Font and Paragraph options on the ribbon. Direct formatting only affects that one occurrence of the text, whereas Styles can be modified to amend all occurrences throughout the document.

Jill walked us through elements of the Style Pane, including the very useful Style Inspector. The little icon with a magnifying glass gives all the style details of a selected character, word or paragraph. Jill then moved on to cover applying built-in styles, creating new styles and amending a style. As well as looking at the font elements of a style, she covered elements of paragraph formatting, including line spacing, indents (or not) and page breaks. The latter was one of my major takeaways from this session – it’s possible to add a line break to a style; so, for example, each chapter can start on a new page if you add a page break to the chapter heading style.

Jill briefly looked at how styles can help with reordering content. Via the navigation pane (on a PC found on the View ribbon), or by clicking Ctrl+F, it’s possible to see the sections of the document under ‘Headings’. Within that pane, it’s possible to drag one heading to above/below another, which reorders the text within the document – mind blown!

To share styles, it’s possible to share a document with the styles within it, or create a template document (filename.dot) that can be used as the basis for new documents or attached to existing documents.

Jill finished the session by highlighting how Word styles can save time, keep documents under control, and make them (and you) look professional.

The session was a very comprehensive introduction to Word styles, and demonstrated the importance of using this functionality in everyday editing life.


Learn more about working in Microsoft Word in the CIEP course Word for Practical Editing.


Abi Saffrey has been tinkering with Microsoft Word documents for over 20 years.

She’s an Advanced Professional Member of the CIEP, offering editorial project management and copyediting to a variety of organisations that publish digital and printed content.

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Podcasts and editors: what the word nerd heard (part 2)

In the first part of this blog, I explained why I’m a fan of podcasts and how their focus on narrative and storytelling make them particularly appealing to writers and editors.

In this second part, I’ve identified a few shows that I think fellow editors may enjoy – and they’re not necessarily what you’d expect. It’s just a small selection from the two million plus podcast series that are available, so existing podcast fans will probably wonder why I’ve not mentioned their favourite show. Well, I probably don’t know about it – but I’m always looking for new ideas so do put a link in the comments to any podcasts you love.

1. Podcasts about working with words

I only listen to a handful of podcasts that deal explicitly with language. I spend enough of my day wrestling with words as it is. But these are all diverting enough for listening not to feel like work, and could even be regarded as CPD (continuing professional development).

The Editing Podcast: All about writing and editing

Our friends, CIEP directors Denise and Louise, may have given you your first taste of the wonderful world of podcasts. They already have six seasons of bridging the gap between writers and editors, showing that our profession is both approachable and knowledgeable. What better combination? Add to that the fact that their shows are short and they don’t take up all your phone memory, and it’s a must-listen.

By the Book: The power of books and friendship

Here’s another couple of literary ladies, these ones quite different to Louise and Denise. Kristen and Jolenta live by a different self-help book each week, with varying results. For editors, it’s fascinating to note what it is about this genre that appeals to readers. But it’s not so much about how useful the books are, as about how powerful relationships are. Even if you have little in common with their New York lifestyles, these two not only are great role models as friends, but also seem to have helpful and supportive husbands who don’t mind their personal lives being recorded for the entertainment of thousands of listeners.

Because Language (was Talk the Talk): Cutting-edge linguistics

Much of the engaging character of this show also stems from the relationship between the three presenters. They take a very modern and descriptivist approach to language use, which is interesting from an editorial point of view. One might argue that they can be a little too tolerant of certain uses while shutting down others, but that’s the balance that linguists must negotiate.

For another option, Lingthusiasm is probably the best-known linguistics podcast, due to one of its presenters being the author of the excellent book, Because Internet – and it is worth listening to – but I have to admit my mind tends to wander during their lingthusiastic discussions.

The Allusionist: Exploring language in society

Helen Zaltzman explores language in relation to everything from cookery books to the censorship of Brazilian newspapers to Dickensian theme parks. It packs a lot into 20 minutes or so, and sheds a lot of light on both American and British culture, including the latest thoughts on sensitive language. The transcripts are particularly comprehensive, with lots of supporting material and enough links to get lost in for the rest of the day.

Something Rhymes with Purple: Jolly japes with Gyles and Susie

Everybody loved Susie Dent’s interview at last year’s CIEP conference and her etymological podcast with National Treasure™ Gyles Brandreth is just as entertaining. Both presenters are incredibly erudite, but wear their learning lightly (unlike Gyles’s famous jumpers) as they spark off each other while discussing the words of the week. It’s also quite funny to hear these respectable celebrities discuss sex and swearing so openly.

For ideas for more podcasts about language and writing, check out the suggestions at Podchaser and Book Careers.

2. Podcasts about narrative and storytelling

You may have noted that, for me, the appeal of my favourite podcasts often comes from the interaction of the presenters, and how they construct their narrative.

It’s the same for these podcasts, which focus on broader themes – real experiences and the world around us.

The Moth: The art of (true) storytelling

This is the original performance-storytelling podcast – real-life anecdotes told live on stage without notes. From an editorial viewpoint, it’s about constructing a compelling narrative but, on a more emotive level, it’s about life experiences across different times and cultures. Some stories are funny, some are tragic, some are compelling, all are memorable.

Don’t miss a lovely story by Mr PerfectIt himself (I nearly crashed the car when I heard the name Daniel Heuman), the amazing experience of an astronaut struggling to swim, or my absolute favourite – a woman remembers how reluctantly collecting milk-bottle tops for charity became something much greater than she expected.

Also check out spin-offs like The Dublin Story Slam, which features mostly Irish storytellers recounting their experiences. Mortified is another variant on the theme, in which adults read out their own teenage diaries on stage, with comical and cringeworthy results.

Spooks and Bogles: Never let the truth get in the way of a good story

Actor, author and historian (and – disclaimer – my friend) David Kinnaird found himself short of an audience at the start of last year’s lockdown so, with typical energy and panache, he used his considerable knowledge and performance skills to write and perform a weekly podcast about Stirling’s history and ghost stories. If that sounds a little esoteric, well, that’s part of the charm, but David’s research and storytelling is exemplary. And in fact, after around 70 episodes, it’s broadened its focus to Scottish, and sometimes Irish and English, folklore – the starting points for fascinating explorations of history, politics and the nature of reality.

For context, start at the beginning with Dead Man Talking.

99% Invisible: Putting the visual world into words

This one’s a lesson in style for non-fiction editors – every episode succeeds in vividly explaining the influence of design and inventions on the world. Presented by the memorably named Roman Mars, each of these mini-documentaries about architecture or technology or town planning or ‘Who Let The Dogs Out’ by the Baha Men* will have you repeating random facts at everyone you meet.

They’ve covered almost literally everything – but several episodes are about books and here’s a recent episode, The Clinch, about the sexy covers of romance novels.

*If you’re interested in the origin stories of cheesy pop songs, an honourable mention goes to this uplifting episode of Every Little Thing, about the origins of that wedding-reception classic, ‘Cha Cha Slide’.

How I Built This: The stories behind the brands

Another memorably named presenter, Guy Raz, interviews entrepreneurs of brands you may or may not have heard of about their experiences of starting, running and sometimes leaving businesses. It sounds horribly dry and capitalist but it’s actually very engaging – another lesson in how storytelling works in factual contexts too. Guy’s politely probing interviewing style results in some candid revelations from CEOs. Look out for him making a point of asking both women and men how they balanced work with childcare, and also note the answers to his most famous question … was your success due to skill or luck?

As a daily Duolingo user, I like this episode about the surprising story of the world’s top language-learning app.

Beautiful Anonymous: A weekly tribute to empathy, openness and honesty

It’s a simple premise. New Jersey comedian Chris Gethard chats with an anonymous caller for an hour. They tell their life stories in their own words, so you get perspectives from those whose voices you may not normally have a chance to hear. Some callers have rather dull lives; others certainly do not – but it’s all about what it is to be human.

There are more than 270 episodes so far. Chris himself recommends his favourite early episodes in this article.

And finally …

My Dad Wrote a Porno: The best editing podcast of all

You’ve probably heard of this one – it’s one of the most popular British standalone podcasts and has picked up numerous celebrity fans. And it really is all about writing and editing! Jamie and his friends read out – and comment on – his dad’s explicit but amateurish porn novels. It’s both hilarious and, er, educational, in more ways than one. They’re quick to pick up on inconsistencies, factual errors (especially involving body parts) and structural issues – showing that readers do notice such things. The spin-off book was a marked-up manuscript – I’ve got a copy right here next to Hart’s Rules.

And you’ll never think of pomegranates in the same way again.

Enjoy listening and do tell me about your own favourite podcasts – the more obscure the better!

About Julia Sandford-Cooke

Julia Sandford-CookeJulia Sandford-Cooke of WordFire Communications has spent more than 20 years in publishing. When she’s not listening to podcasts, she writes and edits textbooks, speaks very bad Dutch and posts short, often grumpy, book reviews on her blog, Ju’s Reviews.

 

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: play/pause by Thomas Breher from Pixabay; Listen by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Podcasts and editors: what the word nerd heard (part 1)

In this first of two blog posts, Julia Sandford-Cooke introduces us to podcasts and looks at how they can be a useful development tool for editors. She answers the following questions:

  • What is a podcast?
  • Do you have to pay for them?
  • Who listens to podcasts?
  • What can podcasts be about?
  • OK but how does this all tie in with editing?
  • Don’t know where to start?

I have to admit something that you might find shocking. Brace yourself …

I don’t listen to BBC Radio 4. No, not even The Archers.

In fact, I haven’t listened to live radio, or live TV for that matter, for years. But I somehow still manage to be well informed on topics that interest me. In fact, spend any time with me and one thing I’m likely to say (other than ‘How can the dishwasher be full already?’) is ‘I heard [insert fascinating fact] on a podcast’.

According to my aptly named Podcast Addict phone app, I’ve spent 91 days listening to podcasts since 2016. Last week alone, 10 hours and 36 minutes of my time were accompanied by podcasts. So I must have spent 10 hours and 36 minutes on my morning walk, cooking, tidying, cleaning and, yes, dealing with the dishwasher. It’s just like listening to the radio – any task that would otherwise require me to listen to my own thoughts can be carried out while listening to other people’s. It’s my own form of curated content.

What is a podcast?

Podcasts are a form of on-demand audio media. Many people, at least in the UK, seem to think they are simply radio shows you download from the BBC website. Well, some are, but you’re missing out if that’s the extent of your podcast experience. The majority are standalone audio recordings, usually part of a series, researched, recorded and produced specifically for listeners to access via their computer, tablet or phone. You can download episodes to listen to when you want, or you can stream them if you have a reliable WiFi connection.

Episodes can be any length, from five minutes to a couple of hours. Most of those I listen to are between 20 and 50 minutes long – again, like a radio show. But unlike radio shows, many have transcripts, along with images, on their websites, so people who are unable to hear or have difficulty taking in spoken information can still access the content.

One of the many wonderful things about podcasts is that it’s very easy to create your own. Three of my friends (separately) started shows during last year’s lockdown – everyone can have a voice, though whether they have an audience is another matter and that, as with books, is down to promotion and word of mouth.

Do you have to pay for them?

Podcasts are generally free to access. However, a downside is that many have to keep stopping for adverts from their ‘sponsors’, which is a bit tedious if you’re used to ad-free media. But you can always fast-forward through them, and it’s worth putting up with the ads if it means the shows remain free. Others are funded by fans donating to Patreon or similar crowd-funding platforms – I support my friend David’s historical storytelling in Spooks & Bogles, for example, and the entertaining and erudite Strong Songs has more than 1,250 subscribers willing to pay a monthly fee to hear about the songwriting techniques behind their favourite tracks.

Most podcast apps and platforms, such as Spotify, are free for the basic service. I chose to pay £2.99 several years ago to get the premium version of my app and I still think it was a great investment.

Who listens to podcasts?

Well, who watches TV or plays football? Anyone who wants to. Anyone who can. Recent statistics suggest that 55% of the American population has listened to a podcast, and about 18% of people in the UK listen to at least one podcast every week. They are particularly popular in South America.

Some research suggests podcast listeners are ‘loyal, affluent and educated’ – and not necessarily young. I know a man in his mid 70s who likes nothing better than to plug in his headphones to spend some introvert time with the latest episode of his favourite science show.

Far from being the latest newfangled fad, podcasts are really pretty mainstream. It’s estimated that 14.6 million people in the UK listen to podcasts (numbers have shot up since the pandemic started).

They have been around for quite a while by today’s technology standards. They first began to gain momentum in 2004, to the extent that ‘podcast’ was declared word of the year by the New Oxford American Dictionary in 2005. There’s even an International Podcast Day™ on 30 September. Interestingly, organisers used to describe it as an opportunity ‘to educate current and future consumers about podcasting and advance the podcasting discipline’ but now simply say it is ‘a celebration of the power of podcasts’. An example, perhaps, of the impact of their recent popularity?

What can podcasts be about?

Part of the mainstream appeal comes from the huge variety of subjects that two million different podcast series inevitably bring.

Statistics indicate that British listeners are most likely to download podcasts in the genres of sport, news/politics and comedy (mostly produced by the ubiquitous BBC). There are apparently 18 different daily news podcasts in the UK alone but, sport, news and politics not being topics on which I wish to spend my leisure time, I subscribe to only a couple of the current top 100 iTunes podcasts, which is surprisingly few considering I follow more than 50 podcasts overall.

Personally, I prefer documentary-style factual content or autobiographical shows. In the mood for onstage anecdotes? Play The Moth. Hungry? Play The Sporkful. Fancy a bit of contemporary socioeconomic theory (and who doesn’t)? Play Freakonomics.

Podcasts can be fiction too, and the format allows for original approaches to dramatic audio production. I enjoyed the thriller Carrier (soon to be filmed for Netflix) but that’s because its star Cynthia Erivo can do no wrong. But most scripted shows are ‘docudrama’ style, often based on the discoveries of a (fictional) investigative reporter, and I find these get tiresome pretty quickly. I’d rather read a novel.

OK but how does all this tie in with editing?

  • There’s the obvious thematic link. Many podcasts are about language, linguistics, writing, publishing or editing. Our very own Denise and Louise host The Editing Podcast, a must-listen for writers and editors alike.
  • Then there’s the structural link. My favourite shows are less obviously related to my profession but, in my opinion, are just as immersed in narrative and storytelling, as I’ll demonstrate in the second part of my blog.
  • Podcasts are collated, compiled and edited just like books. Producers choose what to keep and what to remove. Like books, they have tropes and formats that we come to expect, from an introductory clip to capture our attention to carefully selected background music. John August, in the first episode of Launch (a podcast about publishing his novel), does a fine job of identifying some of these. (He’s also very nice about copyeditors.)
  • Listening to podcasts improves my general knowledge. You can choose which podcast you listen to but you don’t necessarily know what they’ll be talking about so you never know when the history of barbed wire, the story of Wigan Casino or the fact that certain species of baby spider eat their mothers will come in handy. Many’s the time that I’ve run to Google to find out more about something I’ve just heard.
  • Listening also increases my awareness of other cultures and beliefs, and (because I listen to so many American shows), my awareness of how other cultures view my own. Admittedly, I roll my eyes at the frequent, outdated criticisms of British food (Gastropod, I’m looking at you) or mentions of generic ‘British accents’, but it’s nevertheless illuminating to appreciate that stereotyping works both ways.
  • I spend so much time with the written word that spoken language provides a useful balance, with its own layers of meaning and surprise. Surely I’m not the only person not to know that apparently ‘pho’ (the soup) should be pronounced ‘phar’? (Disclaimer: I can’t be sure that it is – I just heard it in a podcast.)

Don’t know where to start?

With so many podcasts to choose from, it can be hard to identify the ones you’ll enjoy most. What are you interested in? Websites like Podchaser group shows by genre – business, technology, comedy, audio drama and so on – or check the iTunes charts to see what’s popular in the UK at the moment.

If you have a hobby or special interest, from quilting to paddleboarding, there’s bound to be a podcast (or several) that covers it. Or perhaps you’d like to hear the stars of your favourite 2000s TV show (like The West Wing, The OC and Gilmore Girls) reminiscing. Ten years ago, backstage gossip might have been in book format but today it’s actors and the production team interacting.

Just browse until something catches your interest and then stream it online – via a website or on Spotify – or download it to an app, which I prefer because it’s portable.

Still looking for ideas? The second part of this blog will give you a few more starting points.

About Julia Sandford-Cooke

Julia Sandford-CookeJulia Sandford-Cooke of WordFire Communications has spent more than 20 years in publishing. When she’s not listening to podcasts, she writes and edits textbooks, speaks very bad Dutch and posts short, often grumpy, book reviews on her blog, Ju’s Reviews.

 

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: Listen by Nick Fewings; podcasting set up by Will Francis, both on Unsplash.

What editors need to know when asking authors questions

The Art of Querying, a new CIEP course, is on its way. Its creator, Gerard M-F Hill, gives
us a speedy tour through questions and queries, and what the course offers editors
and proofreaders.

Is the current King of France bald?

Questions are of many kinds, and not all of them are good questions – or even answerable.

Whatever you edit – advert, magazine, novel or research paper – you soon start asking yourself questions. What does this mean? Where did those come from? How am I supposed to know that? Is that all? Or even just: why? Of course queries should be clear and concise, but it’s good to be constructive too. What makes a good query?

Before you fire off a query, ask yourself what the problem is. You need to have a reason for asking, because the author may not think it is a problem at all. You first identify the problem by analysing what is bothering you. As a result, you will craft a better question and often you will identify an answer (or answers); then the author just needs to say yes (or no, not exactly … more like this).

Might I suggest?

As queries take up the author’s time (as well as yours), it is only common courtesy to keep them as few and as short as possible. So you need criteria to decide when to ask a question, and you also need a range of suitable formulas that you can adapt for each situation. Good questions will help to ensure that you get a usable answer.

Queries can be short, but they don’t have to be abrupt. It pays to be diplomatic. There are good ways to approach an author, to frame a question and to follow up an incomplete answer – and there are some even better ways.

Does it match the brief/blurb?

Who is this publication for? What will readers want to know? What will they expect to find? What are they expected to know already? Will they know all these facts, names, words, idioms, allusions or connections? Will they resent the presentation as either patronising or trivialising?

As an editor, you ask yourself such questions because they are a big part of the expertise that you offer and that your client is paying for. A publisher does not wish to hear of such defects from unimpressed reviewers or disenchanted readers.

Does it make sense?

What is the writer trying to say? Are they getting their message across? Does it make sense? Why is this different from that? You ask yourself such questions on behalf of the reader, who should not be left to wonder and has no way of asking the author to explain.

If it doesn’t make sense, if the plot or proposition doesn’t add up, if defective grammar is stuffed with malapropisms or other unsuitable words, the reader will soon drift off and never return. The editor aims to prevent any such crisis by smoothing the reader’s path so they can be informed, educated or entertained without being tripped up, distracted or misled.

Are you happy with this?

Where possible, make it easy for the author by presenting your query as a simple choice: A or B? This, that or the other? Would this [rewritten sentence] represent what you are saying?

Have forgotten something?

It’s easy to see that ‘you’ is missing in that sentence. It’s not so easy to spot when a whole topic or aspect of a piece, or the dénouement of a subplot, has been overlooked. The questioning editor keeps a lookout for content that the reader may be expecting, but which is not there.

Easy questions

Why is water wet? This penetrating question from a thoughtful child nonetheless demonstrates that ‘the greatest fool may ask more than the wisest man can answer’, though children are not fools. The saying is often attributed to King James I and VI.

In checking the reference (as all good authors should) I found to my surprise that the aphorism did not come from the wisest fool in Christendom, but from Charles Caleb Colton’s Lacon, published in 1820. In non-fiction, references – inadequate, unconvincing, mangled or missing – usually generate half your queries.

Here’s the answer!

Between 2010 and 2019 I regularly ran a session at the SfEP conference on The Art of Querying, and since then I have been expanding this workshop into an online course. It begins with the whole question of questions. For a start, what do you need to ask yourself? Can your author query be answered at all? Is there only one way to answer it? Could it be misinterpreted? Does the text assume the answer to an unspoken question?

The course next looks at questions to ask the project manager, with a checklist, and how and when to approach the author, with examples of how to do it and what not to do. This section discusses practicalities, from typefaces to time zones, alongside the principles and professional ethics that underlie all editorial queries. It Looks Funny examines your five options before you ask anything, followed by advice on formulating queries and notes, with six rules to help you.

Readers struggle with four major problems – inconsistency, ambiguity, omission and error – and each of these topics has a whole section of the course to itself. Different types of content have their own pitfalls, so there are sections devoted to prelims, narrative and argument, vocabulary and terminology, references, tables and artwork.

The Art of Querying is meant to be instructive, stimulating and enjoyable while extending your editing knowledge and skills, with lots of questions (and answers), well over a hundred real-life examples, copious but concise study notes and a variety of exercises to let you think through different solutions, along with a decision tool to determine whether and what to query, six rules you can follow and a dozen checklists for you to download and use. The Art of Querying is also (I hope) a good read and good fun!

Find out more about The Art of Querying

About Gerard M-F Hill

After several years teaching and 16 years driving heavy lorries, Gerard retrained as an indexer and copyeditor. Since 1990 he has worked on over 500 books and mentored over 100 proofreaders.

As a director of SfEP (2007–16) he devised the basic editorial test used by CIEP and as chartership adviser (2016–20) he worked with the chair, Sabine Citron, to obtain the institute’s Royal Charter.

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: question mark by Emily Morter; Answers 1km by Hadija Saidi, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Should I volunteer when I’m starting out?

Wherever you are in your editing or proofreading career, taking on voluntary work can benefit you and others. But, as many who have done it will tell you, it’s not without its snares and snags. With the help of some generous CIEP members who have shared their experiences, in this article we’ll look at how volunteering can work when you’re starting out. We’ll also suggest some questions that you should ask yourself before you start offering your valuable time for free. In a future CIEP blog, we’ll look at how volunteering works when you’re established in your editing or proofreading career.

Below we’ll cover:

  • Discovering a taste for what you enjoy
  • Learning with less pressure
  • Declaring yourself
  • Getting your foot in the door
  • Using voluntary work for membership upgrades
  • Four questions to ask yourself before you volunteer

Discovering a taste for what you enjoy

Unpaid work is the way that many proofreaders and editors start – in fact, it can be how they realise they have an aptitude and enthusiasm for what will later become their career. Perhaps a friend, knowing you’re good with words, asks you to check the grammar and punctuation in their thesis, and halfway through you think: ‘I’m really enjoying this!’

Learning with less pressure

Once you’ve done your basic training, volunteering can help you test your new editing or proofreading skills and learn a few more without the stresses that could come from being paid. One of our members described the voluntary jobs she had taken on since completing her CIEP Proofreading courses – proofreading two series of short stories, some poetry and three website articles – and the impressive set of new and improved skills she acquired in the process:

  • increasing her competence and confidence in using Track Changes and Find and Replace, and starting to explore Word Styles
  • learning how to save a web page as a PDF, and practising using the Adobe Comments tools
  • using PerfectIt and other macros for the first time
  • compiling a style sheet to use as a template
  • keeping a record of time spent and work carried out, which helped her calculate her average proofreading speeds.

This member has appreciated the time and space that volunteering allows for growing into a new career:

I am finding this period of focusing on voluntary work to be hugely beneficial. With each job I develop new skills or learn about new tools which I can incorporate into my practice. As an Entry-Level Member, I like not having the pressure of being paid – for now!

At the same time, however, she hasn’t lost sight of the ultimate plan – to get paid work:

I am also building up a little bank of testimonials which I can use on my website, and at least two of the clients have said they will recommend me to friends and colleagues.

Declaring yourself

Sometimes you might be volunteering in a different arena from editing and proofreading, but if you tell the people you meet what you usually do for a living, more relevant volunteering work could come your way. One member says:

My daughter is a pharmacy dispensing technician at a village medical centre near to us. During the summer of last year, they were looking for volunteers to step up and help manage visitors attending for their flu jab, along with those attending for other medical appointments and pharmacy collections. Always happy to help out, up went my hand, into which was promptly thrust a high-vis jacket.

When asked what I would normally be doing, I was happy to tell folks that I’m a novice proofreader and occasional copywriter. The next thing I knew, my lovely daughter came home from work with a bottle of red in one hand and the medical centre’s newly penned ‘Team Handbook’ in the other.

Always remember, though, that if you’re accepting ‘payment in kind’, such as wine, you need to declare yourself to the tax office, too. Sue Littleford, our columnist on business matters, explains:

Had the CIEP member’s bottle of red wine been handed over for some proofreading, it would have been a ‘payment in kind’ and yes, it’s taxable. He’d have had to put the cash value of the wine in his accounts.

Getting your foot in the door

Getting paid in wine, or cake/casseroles/bedding plants if any of those are more your thing, is great, but at some point you’ll need to get some paying clients. One member described how this happened for her:

When my youngest was a baby (2012), I was involved with my local NCT branch. I worked with the newsletter team, and somehow took on the role of getting 700+ printed copies of this booklet distributed to local members every quarter!

I carried on proofreading for the branch long after I’d left my NCT days behind. It was only about five hours’ work a quarter, but it was great experience and something regular to look forward to while I was starting out.

Then last year, someone I knew from that time contacted me through LinkedIn. She remembered what I’d done with the NCT newsletter and thought I’d be a perfect fit for a project she was leading on at work. I’ve now had 8–9 months of consultancy work through this company on two different projects, helping me towards my most profitable year by far!

It’s not going to work quite like that for everyone every time, and this won’t last forever for me. But I do think that doing those little jobs on a voluntary basis can sow the seeds in people’s minds, and you never know when they might need you for something different (and paid). It shows people what you can do and how you work, and they’ll remember that.

Another member says:

When I started my freelance proofreading business last July, I contacted many companies and charities offering my services for free in exchange for a testimonial, as I felt this was the best way to gain experience and also increase my exposure in the form of having recommendations to hand.

I had a few positive responses, one of which was from Kathy Bishop, the editor of the Catholic magazine The Faith Companion.

Kathy’s initial response was that she would be happy to help me out as everyone ‘needs a helping hand’, and that she would send me a couple of articles to work on for the next issue, but she wanted to make it clear that they weren’t looking to take anyone on. I replied saying that wasn’t a problem at all, I was just happy with the opportunity to gain some experience and increase my hours.

I now have The Faith Companion as a regular client for the foreseeable future, and I really don’t think this would have happened if I hadn’t originally offered my services on a voluntary basis.

Using voluntary work for membership upgrades

Can voluntary hours count towards a CIEP membership upgrade? They can, if you’re using certain core skills and applying for a certain level. Professional standards director Lucy Metzger says:

For someone seeking an Intermediate Member (IM) grade, it’s fine for some or all of their 100 hours of work experience to be voluntary, and we wouldn’t expect it to be done for a traditional publisher. Some paid proofreading or copyediting work would strengthen the IM application overall, but it’s not a requirement.

However, in order for volunteer work to be counted in an IM application, it still needs to be work using what we call our ‘core skills’ – proofreading and/or copyediting. If a person’s voluntary work has included non-editorial tasks, as well as some core skills work, we would count only the number of hours using the core skills.

For upgrading to Professional (PM) or Advanced Professional (APM), the core skills work experience needs to be for publishers who understand the standards we are looking for in the core skills. If the work is for another body whose core business isn’t publishing (a ‘non-publisher’) the applicant’s experience can be validated by passing the Institute’s editorial test. If a previous application for IM relied mostly on voluntary hours, those hours would most likely be for non-publishers, which would count in a later application for PM or APM only with a test pass, demonstrating that the applicant had the required level of expertise in the core skills.

Four questions to ask yourself before you volunteer

So far, so good, then. However, there are some important questions to ask yourself before you take the plunge and offer your services for free. These questions are taken from an archived blog about volunteering written by a previous blog coordinator, Tracey Roberts.

1. Who should you volunteer with?

Not all charities or non-profit organisations need free help, so do your homework: ‘many charities have healthy budgets’, as Tracey points out. You could follow your interests, and volunteer to proofread or edit something in the fields of gardening, poetry, politics, sport or history, for example. There may be a newsletter for a club or organisation you belong to that you could help with. Some of our members edit their local church magazine.

2. What will you get out of it?

‘This is important,’ says Tracey. ‘If the person or organisation you are volunteering for doesn’t know what’s required of a good editor or proofreader, how valuable will their testimonial really be?’ Tracey makes another very valid point which touches on an aspect that many editors and proofreaders have been burned by: ‘Working for a client (or especially a friend) who doesn’t understand the process (and while you are still learning yourself) could turn into a tricky or negative experience.’ So make sure you go in with open eyes.

3. What skills do you want to practise?

If you want to work in fiction editing, look for experience there. If your aim is to be a scientific editor, volunteer to proofread a PhD thesis in biology.

4. How much time are you happy to provide?

Tracey explains:

In the early stages of your freelance career you will be busy building your new business and need time to develop your marketing strategy, website etc. Any time spent volunteering must fit around the creation of your new freelance business, and other important personal commitments, to ensure a healthy work–life balance is maintained.

Remember too that if you work for a client for free, or even a reduced rate, it will be very difficult to start charging at full rate when asked to take on future projects.

So remember not to overwhelm yourself, and as time passes think carefully about the balance between your unpaid and paid work. As your career matures, however, there’s no reason why you should give up volunteering if it’s still benefiting you and your business. In our second related blog, we’ll look at what you can get out of volunteering when you’re more established.

Written by the CIEP information team. With thanks to the CIEP members who generously shared their experiences.

About the CIEP information team

Abi Saffrey, Liz Jones, Margaret Hunter, Cathy Tingle

Liz Jones, Abi Saffrey and Cathy Tingle are the CIEP’s information commissioning editors. If there’s a topic that you would like to see covered in a blog post, fact sheet, focus paper or guide, drop the team a line at infoteam@ciep.uk.

 

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: welcome by Andrew Neel; raise your paw by Camylla Battani, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Wise owls: how long does it take to edit something?

We asked our parliament of wise owls, all Advanced Professional Members, about editing speeds: how long does it take to edit or proofread something? What’s fast or slow, and is that even the right question?

Hazel Bird

Few topics in the editorial world are more prone to oversimplification than editing speeds. I suspect some of this comes from clients, for whom a supposedly ‘standard’ speed might be either (more positively) a helpful starting point for fee negotiations or (more negatively) a crude tool used to push back against requests for fee increases. The most extreme example of the latter I ever encountered was when years ago, as a very new proofreader struggling with hideously messy proofs, I told the client how quickly I was working – a speed I now know with experience was reasonable – and was informed that they ‘knew children who could read more quickly than that’ (and yes, they did say ‘read’ rather than ‘proofread’). I was far too timid to respond with any fortitude at the time, so please forgive me the self-indulgence of this delayed public catharsis.

So, clients may have an idea of how quickly we should be working, and that idea may or may not be based on sound knowledge of what professional editorial work entails. However, as editors and proofreaders, we care about this too. We naturally want to know how our speed compares to that of our colleagues. And speed = time and time = money, so knowing how quickly we edit is vital to ensuring we are quoting appropriately.

Looking back at my records of over 600 projects, I’ve clocked up editing speeds between 250 words per hour and (very occasionally) 10,000. Clearly, then, it would be nonsensical to refer to ‘my editing speed’ in the singular, but it would also be pointless to think of either extreme as ‘slow’ or ‘fast’. For example, 500 words per hour seems slow on the face of it, but it might be fast for especially complex editing of text by someone writing in their second (or third or fourth) language with structural changes.

Thinking about your editing speed is crucial, but ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ are only relevant as far as you can contextualise them within your own work – its difficulty, detail, workflow and so on. And, equally, before you compare your speed with that of another editor, make sure you understand what you’re comparing yourself against – in essence, what kind of work the other editor does.

Sue LittlefordSue Littleford

There are two ways of looking at speed: how many words per hour you can deal with, and how intensively you can keep going. Do you spread a five-hour job over two days, a week, or get it all done in one day? Nor will your speed be consistent over all the stages of a job. I take longer per word checking and fixing bibliographies than the running text.

My own belief is that the right speed is the fastest speed you can safely go while fulfilling the brief, giving good customer service and maintaining your own equilibrium.

It’s pretty obvious that speed is dependent on four things:

  • the condition of the manuscript
  • what the client wants you to do to it, and how many times
  • your own expertise, and
  • everything else, by which I mean the way that life gets in the way of work and sometimes work gets in the way of other work.

Because of these four factors, it’s not usually sensible to try to compare your speed with other people’s except in the most general way. What you can usefully do, though, is keep records of your own speeds. If you’ll pardon me a plug for the Going Solo Toolkit for CIEP members (you’ll need to be logged in), the Work record spreadsheet helps you to collect all the information about a job that will give you a feel for your range of speeds for a given type of work, as influenced by those four factors.

Finally, don’t be seduced by the idea of an average – my fastest is three times my slowest, so I need to discover factors 1 and 2 in order to be able to give a decent quote.

Liz Jones

In my experience, it’s helpful to be able to think two things at once about editing speeds. First, it is definitely useful to have an idea of how long it takes you to proofread or copyedit a particular number of words. This will be an average figure, depending on the state of the original text, but having such a figure to refer to will help when it comes to quoting for work.

But at the same time as it’s useful to have benchmark figures in mind, it’s also important to remember that they mean nothing. Every project is different, every author is different, every brief is different, every budget is different (unless you’re working on a series of similar documents for the same client). Crucially, every editor is different. Faster editing isn’t necessarily better editing, although very slow editing is likely to cost either your client or you dearly.

When I’m mentoring editors, I tell them that in the beginning, it’s better to focus on accuracy than speed. You don’t ever stop focusing on accuracy, of course, but the speed does improve of its own accord over time – and of course there are all sorts of things we can do to increase it further. But that’s another story.

Louise BolotinLouise Bolotin

Asking how long it will take to edit or proofread a document is akin to asking what it will cost. As with pricing, it depends. I know from experience that my average editing speed is around 2,500 words per hour. If I’m given a text that is very clean, which is to say the writer has already gone through it to check for typos, errors and other possible issues, and for clarity, I could work as fast as 3,000 words per hour.

However, I have a number of clients outside the UK whose first language is not English. I’m likely to receive a file from them that has either been written by them or badly translated. For those clients, I will probably have to do a lot of rewriting and thinking through what they actually mean, and my speed will be more like 1,000 to 1,500 words per hour. And I could be as slow as that even when editing for someone who does speak English as their first language, if the text needs a lot of work, or if there are a lot of tables.

I log all this data on a spreadsheet that also records my time for each client, so I have a good idea of my range of speeds for different proficiency levels in English and the condition of the text. The data acts as a good comparison chart when I’m approached by new clients. I always ask for a sample of the text, as I can assess my likely speed and that will form part of the pricing. My speed includes everything: hours spent on the actual editing or proofreading, plus time reading the style guide if there is one and other prepping, plus all the time taken to administrate the job – that’s the number of words divided by the total time spent on the job.

It depends

As with so many aspects of editorial work, the simplest way to sum up the answer to a question about editing speeds is ‘it depends’. Each editor, client and project combination is different, and thus so is the time the edit or proofread will take.

What are your experiences of editing and proofreading speeds? Do you see yourself as ‘fast’ or ‘slow’, or somewhere in the middle? Let us know in the comments below.

Increasing editing and proofreading efficiency

If you are looking for ways to use your working time more efficiently, there are plenty of CIEP resources to help.

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credit: fast owl in flight by Pete Nuij on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Using plain English to maximise immersion in fiction

When most people think of plain English, they think of functional, practical non-fiction texts rather than stories. Here, Katherine Kirk looks at how the plain English principles can be applied to works of fiction.

In this article, I’ll explore these questions:

  • What is plain English and why does it matter for fiction?
  • How can plain English principles improve the fiction reader’s experience?
  • Does writing in plain English mean stripping fiction of its artistry?

Striking the right tone

In my former life as an English teacher, I found that many of my students, in an attempt to elevate their English to the highest possible level, were obfuscating their concepts by becoming fixated on implementing linguistic arabesques which were utterly drenched in verbosity at the expense of clarity.

If you’re still reading after that ridiculous sentence, thank you for sticking around. Most readers wouldn’t.

Using loftier words to sound like a ‘better writer’ is more common than you’d think. Students trying to pad their essays will devour a thesaurus whole and vomit the longest words onto the page. Writers for whom English might not be their first language – and some for whom it is – will often turn to the flashiest word and throw it into a sentence it has no right to be in, having missed the connotations and nuances that make a word fit just right.

Writers who hold the literary arts to be the most profound form of human expression (and rightly so!) might feel that they would be doing their book an injustice by writing it the way they speak, and that readers who come across simple sentences and words might feel that their text lacks colour.

As copyeditors, one of our aims is to have the readers’ interests at heart. Hopefully, this article will help you to show your clients that writing in plain English doesn’t mean writing in boring English, and how simplifying their texts makes it easier for readers to fall in love with their story.

Aristotle said, over two millennia ago, ‘The virtue of style is to be clear … and to be neither mean nor above the prestige of the subject, but appropriate.’ He’s talking about using the right language for the job at hand. The fiction writer’s job is to write a story their readers can escape into. Our job is to help them.

What is plain English and why does it matter?

When most people think of plain English, it’s with regard to non-fiction texts, such as warning labels, legal or government documents, or instructional guides. Laura Ripper and Luke Finley wrote an excellent introduction to plain English for the CIEP blog a few years ago.

Most plain English principles tend to be aimed at businesses and organisations that want their users, clients or readers to be able to access the information as easily as possible. But how does that apply to fiction writers?

Dr Neil James sets out more general principles, saying that plain English writing should have:

  • a reader-centred approach
  • a clear core message
  • the right level of detail
  • a fit-for-purpose structure
  • coherence and flow
  • clear document design
  • a light but professional tone
  • a readable style
  • an active voice
  • an efficient style
  • an error-free text
  • evidence-based testing.

I think these can apply to fiction too. Let’s dive in!

A reader-centred approach

Good writing transmits ideas from the writer’s mind to the reader’s. The reader imagines the world, hears the dialogue, and feels the emotions. That is immersion, and the best way to get the reader into it is by the most direct route possible – using the same language they think in. When this fails, readers write reviews like ‘I felt lost’ or ‘I couldn’t get into it’. Keeping the reader in mind means making the writing accessible to them.

A clear core message

To successfully transmit that message, it needs to be clear. In fiction, the message is multifaceted: the writer is trying to convey who the characters are, what the story is, and why it matters. If the complexity of their language is getting in the way of any of those things, then readers will feel lost. They might lose interest in the story, too. Writers must beware of tangling up the meaning and concealing it behind words readers need to look up, and sentences they’ll need to read three times to decode. They should also be careful of having a storyline so convoluted that the reader needs a wiki to keep track. If the message is clear and accessible, the reader will have a better experience (and come back for more).

The right level of detail

Sometimes in the effort to convey that image clearly to the reader, a writer might veer too far in the opposite direction by being overly specific and spelling out every little detail. Encourage your clients to give your readers the benefit of the doubt and to trust them to fill in the spaces between the words; removing the fluff will make that easier.

A fit-for-purpose structure

Plain English is about more than just sentence-level clarity. If the story jumps from flashback to flashback, wanders aimlessly through nested dreams, explodes into en dash confetti and then suddenly switches to a second-person account written entirely in italics, the reader will absolutely get confused. Some books manage a labyrinthine structure. In Danielewski’s House of Leaves, the labyrinth is the point. For genre fiction, though, the ease with which your reader can navigate the story directly correlates with their ability to be immersed in it.

Coherence and flow

We can’t all be James Joyce or Samuel Beckett; sometimes the best stories are the ones that readers can actually follow. Leading readers on a journey through the story is what good writing is all about. You don’t want to lure them into the woods only to run off, leaving them to either struggle to catch up or get lost entirely. Writers should be walking just ahead, beckoning the reader around the next corner.

Clear document design

Literary fiction can be a tricky genre to get right because many writers think it means you have to be innovative with punctuation, structure and formatting. Experimentation is fine, if it’s done well – but for immersion’s sake, for writing that disappears behind the story, it’s better to give readers what they expect by following established conventions.

A light but professional tone

Readers may feel intimidated by overly formal text, or text that is dense and inaccessible to them. They might respect the writer, but they probably won’t have as much fun reading the story as they would if it were easier for them to understand. Throwing themselves entirely into the writer’s world takes a certain kind of vulnerability, and if readers feel shut out by language they can’t understand, then they’re not going to do that. Using the right language helps readers to trust the writer and to be willing to open themselves up to having their hearts absolutely destroyed by the story. If the writer is too caught up in trying to sound smarter, then they lose the readers’ trust.

A readable style

The key thing is readability. The most beautiful sentence in the world might be a multilayered, poetic work of art, but if it requires a doctorate to unpick and understand, then the writer is excluding the majority of their readership – and for what? To show off their thesaurus?

An active voice

Now, this is where many people who like to give advice to writers tend to overgeneralise and lead writers astray. It’s also where robotic grammar checkers tend to overcorrect at the expense of clarity, flow and readability. Active voice is about making it clear who is doing what, but passive voice isn’t wrong. In the famous opening line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen isn’t wrong to use the passive voice; she’s making a point, and a sarcastic one at that, setting up the entire premise of the novel.

The passive voice can and should be used with intention. Above all, aim for clarity.

An efficient style

Another bit of writerly advice that well-meaning but often misinformed people give is to cut specific words or sentence structures. It’s silly to make blanket rules when language is infinitely variable. What writers (and editors) can do is try to be as efficient as possible, such as choosing a strong adjective over two weak ones.

Simplicity doesn’t always mean fewer words. Sometimes it means using a few simpler words to convey a complex idea. Having an efficient style means getting the idea from your mind into your reader’s mind without a detour into the dictionary.

An error-free text

The purpose of grammar and punctuation is to eliminate ambiguity and enhance clarity. A logically and grammatically consistent text ensures the reader understands the story the way the writer intended them to. If the writer is trying to force the grammar into doing something it’s not meant to, they’re more likely to make a mistake. They may find themselves tangled up in semicolons and en dashes, and the reader will be just as muddled. That said, fiction is far more forgiving of its rules being bent. Being able to strike a balance between accuracy and a comfortable narrative voice is one of the key skills a fiction copyeditor needs to develop.

Evidence-based testing

What is being tested? It might be the theme or hypothesis behind the story (the ‘what if?’), or it might be the conflict between the characters, or the plausibility of the made-up science. Testing the characters by putting them under pressure is what fuels character development. Show, don’t tell means that fiction writers need to give their readers the evidence of that development by letting them see it unfold.

Reading levels in the UK and US

Putting all these principles together can help editors to make sure their clients’ writing is at an appropriate level for their target readers. According to the Center for Plain Language, the majority of American readers are reading at 8th grade level (12 to 14 years old), and the National Literary Trust reports that many adults in the UK have poor literary skills. So, having the novel in a register that requires a tertiary education to understand means the writer is probably not going to sell many books.

Maintaining the writer’s voice

Some writers may balk at the idea of simplifying their language, thinking that to do so would be to rob the text of any sense of artistry. Editors may worry that they’ll be stripping away the writer’s voice. Be careful to maintain the balance; suggest rather than dictate, and let the writer make the call.

Achieving clarity takes a certain kind of artistry. Do it with the readers in mind and they’ll keep coming back for more.

Wrapping up: plain English in fiction

The elements of plain English writing can apply as much to fiction as to non-fiction texts. Writers and editors can aim for:

  • a reader-centred approach
  • the right level of detail
  • coherence and flow
  • a readable and efficient style
  • an error-free text.

How do you apply plain English principles in your writing or editing? Drop us a line in the comments below.

More guidance on working with plain English

The CIEP has some helpful resources to help you work with plain English.

About Katherine Kirk

Katherine Kirk is a fiction editor who has to force herself to simplify the English in her own writing.

Rumoured to have eaten a dictionary as a child, she suffers from abibliophobia (the fear of running out of books to read). She speaks four and a half Englishes and can often be found muttering to herself about the New York Times Bee’s prejudice against most of them.

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: reflection by Jingwei Ke; hedge maze by Tycho Atsma; straight road by Karsten Würth, all on Unsplash.

Flying solo: Turn hindsight into foresight with checklists

In this new column, Sue Littleford looks at running an editorial business and how to make things more efficient and effective.

Checklists. Write them for your processes, use them consciously and keep them updated. Don’t try to make one checklist work for every type of job.

I could stop there, but we’re learning that the active use of checklists is a gamechanger in avoiding mistakes. The World Health Organization published the lifesaving (or merely inconvenience-saving) results of using checklists in 2008. In 2009, one of the drivers behind the checklist movement in medicine, Atul Gawande, published The Checklist Manifesto. Malcolm Gladwell is a fan. Also in 2009, Apollo astronauts called checklists their ‘fourth crewmember’. In 2019, Scotland reported that, since introducing checklists in 2008, surgical mortality rates had fallen by 37%. Checklists have been applied to air safety since the 1930s with great results.

Lives have been saved, money has been saved, time has been saved, reputations have been saved. What’s not to like?

Checklists help in three ways

  1. You need to think through your processes. Once you see them laid out in front of you, look for gaps and replication, and streamline your systems. That’s an immediate efficiency gain on every single job you do.
  2. They keep you focused. Don’t just glance down a checklist you’ve used a gazillion times and say to yourself, ‘Yeah, that looks OK, I’ve probably done everything’. Pay attention as you work through the list, and tick off each item deliberately. (Like exercise equipment, it doesn’t work if it stays in the box.)
  3. They reduce cognitive overload and anxiety. No need to rely on memory for all the steps, nor to worry you’ve missed one.

You could cover your processes for:

  • taking in a new job and setting up your skeleton records
  • communicating with others
  • doing the initial clean-up
  • converting US to UK English
  • maintaining adherence to the client’s style
  • maintaining consistency between chapters
  • final checks and polishing
  • handover and invoicing.

I’m sure you’ll think of more, relevant to your own practice.

Tailor your checklists to suit each client and their workflow, and each type of job. A proofreading checklist will look very different from a copyediting checklist, which will look very different from a manuscript critique checklist.

The cardinal error is to aim for one big checklist to cover everything. That’s a bad idea for two reasons:

  • you simply can’t cover everything. The unexpected happens, the novel happens; and
  • long checklists are confusing and difficult to follow. They become wearisome and self-defeating.

Instead, have a separate, short checklist for each part of a job.

What a checklist is not

It’s not a list of instructions. It doesn’t contain the detail of how you do your job. It doesn’t remove your autonomy (after all, it’s your checklist and you can change it). It’s also not your first attempt – you will find you need to refine it quite a bit, initially, as you figure out what you need to be reminded about to work well and consistently, as well as what you never forget, and therefore don’t need to include.

What a checklist is

It’s a set of reminders to do the stuff that would make you look stupid if you missed it, and to do the stuff you find you often forget, even though you know you should always do it. It’s your failsafe. And it’s a timesaver, as you work efficiently consistently.

What a good checklist is

It’s a practical, precise, brief and unambiguous reminder of the essential steps you need to take. It underlines your priorities, it stops you forgetting the important stuff in a moment of inattention and it makes you look good to your client or boss.

The big secret: checklists go out of date

I have a client that I’ve worked with for several years, starting out on books and then becoming the sole copyeditor for a journal. I could use the same checklist for both, right? Same publisher? Every time, I sighed heavily about bits of the checklist that were irrelevant, and about the extra bits I needed to remember to check, different for the journal and books. Then the publisher updated their style guide – about a fifth of the checklist was defunct.

Finally, I decided it was time to review the checklists I use most often. I realised that the core of my final-checks checklist had stayed essentially unchanged for about ten years. Ouch. What I’d needed to spell out for myself back then, now only needed a short reminder or could be omitted altogether.

I’d been dotting about the checklist because the flow was no longer logical now I’d matured as a copyeditor. If you’re jumping around your checklist, it’s no longer methodical; it’s an accident waiting to happen.

A checklist for checklists

1. Document your processes

  • List out what you do for each stage of each type of job and for each client.
  • Do you tackle these tasks in the most efficient and logical order? Shunt things around until the sequence is right.

2. Write a checklist that’s no more than one page long

  • If it’s longer, ask yourself why. Are you trying to write an end-to-end checklist? Stop! Short checklists work better than long ones. Don’t include details.
  • Write the checklist as bullet points, and use the empty checkbox symbol as the bullet (I like Wingdings character codes 113, 109 and 114. In Word, Insert tab > Symbols > Font > Wingdings > Character code).
  • Or set out the checklist as a table. I do that if I have to change a bunch of chapters from US to UK English, for example, with the chapters as the rows and each feature that needs attention as the columns.
  • Print out the checklist to use it. Physically tick things off as you complete each task. Your eye is less likely to betray you than working down an onscreen list, but if you’re really trying to reduce your use of paper, use highlighting or set up checkbox content controls in each list to ensure you miss nothing.

3. Set up each checklist as a template

  • As you start each job, open the final-checks checklist you’ll be using and save it specifically for that job. As you work on the text, add to the checklist any tailored checks you need to make at the end of the work – author’s tics, layout issues, anything at all that will add to the accuracy of the finished job.

4. Keep the checklist fresh to your eyes

  • It’s easy to stop paying attention to something you see all the time. To stop your checklists from becoming wallpaper, change the typeface every few uses.

5. Review your checklists

  • How well did the job you just finished go?
  • Were there any catches made at the last moment that could usefully be added to a checklist?
  • How well did the checklists support each aspect of the job? Has this client changed their style or requirements?
  • As you become more experienced, can your checklist be condensed?
  • Have you started using a new tool that should be added to a checklist – a new macro, perhaps?

6. Review your processes

  • You’re not standing still: with every job you gain experience and increase your competence. Review your processes periodically to check whether you’re being as efficient as you can – diarise reminders to do this, or maybe add it as the final item in the last checklist for any given job.
  • Review constantly: be alert to your weak spots. What does your eye tend to glide past? What tasks do you like least and may be inclined to skip or rush? What feedback have clients given you?

Thoughtfully crafted and well-maintained checklists turn hindsight into foresight. And that’s invaluable.

Sue LittlefordSue Littleford is the author of the CIEP guide Going Solo, now in its second edition. She went solo with her own freelance copyediting business, Apt Words, in March 2007 and specialises in scholarly humanities and social sciences. Before that, she had been the payroll manager for a major government department for some 14 years. Her whole career had been markedly numbers based – both in central government and in the private sector – even though she became the go-to wordsmith everywhere she worked. She eventually switched to words full-time, transferring her skills and experience to hone her business efficiency and effectiveness.


Photo credit: hand-written checklist by StockSnap, both on Pixabay.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Commissioning, editing and proofreading figures

By Liz Jones

‘A picture is worth a thousand words.’ We’ve probably all heard this said, and perhaps we’ve even said it ourselves. But – as so often in life – the truth is not as clear-cut as that. In the materials we edit, it’s not always a case of either-or, words versus pictures. Often text and images work together to convey complex information. But the figures that support a text (or that a text supports) can only function at their best if they are commissioned carefully to work as part of a complete editorial package, and if any text associated with them is written, edited and proofread just as carefully as the main or body text.

What is a figure?

In CIEP courses in the core skills of proofreading and copyediting, a figure is defined as ‘any piece of artwork (line-drawing, photo, graph, etc), together with its caption’. Figures appear in all genres of book, from children’s picture books and stories to textbooks, workbooks, technical manuals, and all kinds of non-fiction books – from practical to aspirational to academic. Aside from books, we encounter them in all sorts of written communications, from newsletters and press releases to websites, reports, white papers, advertisements … In short, where don’t we find them?

But editors are word people, you might be thinking. Aren’t images beyond their remit? Well, no. Considering the images that work alongside the text – and are often indivisible from its key message – is a crucial part of most copyediting or proofreading work.

Aside from the image itself, a figure will usually have a title or caption, which the CIEP defines as ‘the explanatory words that appear below (or above or beside) an illustration or figure’. There may also be annotations (very short labels) explaining specific parts of the figure, either placed in the relevant position or connected with leader lines.

If the figure is a graph or chart, the axes or sectors will also be labelled with text.

Purpose and function of figures

Figures might be used in text for various reasons:

  • They give the reader information that cannot be easily or effectively expressed using text alone.
  • They can be used to amplify or clarify the message of a passage of text.
  • They work as visual devices that break up large amounts of text and make it more readable.
  • If the document is about a visual subject, the figures might be more important than the text, even if both are necessary.

How to write a good brief

Sometimes editors are responsible for writing the briefs for figures, whether they are illustrations, photos or graphs. This is especially likely if the editor is project managing or development editing.

The person producing the image, or the picture researcher, will need as much information as you can provide on the following:

  • What information the image needs to convey – this might include a sketch, or it might be a list of points to cover
  • Size of the intended image
  • What colours to use
  • Guidance on the preferred style
  • Any cultural considerations, such as images that are not suitable for a particular audience
  • Visual reference materials, if available and helpful
  • The budget – most images are not free!

Reproducing or redrawing figures

If figures are reproduced from another source, or even if they are redrawn based on another source, then the copyright holder of the original image will need to give you permission to use that figure. They might charge a fee for this, or they might simply stipulate how they should be credited. Some credit lines must appear alongside the figure; others can be placed at the end of the document.

Make sure you allow time in the schedule for clearing image permissions.

Writing and editing figure text

Captions should ideally be written in such a way that that they could stand alone and provide useful information about the figure, even if the reader reads none of the other text. Of course, we probably tend to hope that the reader reads every word we write from beginning to end. But in the real world, we have to accept that this doesn’t always happen. People have short attention spans, and they skip about when they read. Captions should also not simply repeat body text word for word, but add to it, and give the reader specific information on the visuals. For a document to feel authoritative and valuable, it’s crucial to write captions that work hard.

Everyone’s life is made much easier if text that appears as part of the figure is editable, though this is not always possible. If it’s not editable by someone with easy access to the files, make sure to get it proofread early, to allow changes to be made by the illustrator, for example. Bear in mind that the more words appear as intrinsic elements in images, the more of a problem this will be for any editions of the publication in other languages.

When an editor is assessing the scope of their work, they should make sure they include the figures in their fee calculations – both checking their content from an editorial point of view and editing any associated text, which can add considerably to the overall word count and the time needed for the job.

Checklist of common problems

Finally, for anyone tasked with proofreading figures, here are some common problems that crop up time and time again:

  • Figure numbering – out of sequence, missing numbers, inconsistency
  • Annotations pointing to the wrong part of an image
  • Inconsistent capitalisation of captions or annotations
  • Inconsistent punctuation of captions or annotations – especially terminal full stops
  • Captions repeated, or applied to the wrong image(s)
  • Captions that seem to contradict the image (for example referring to a colour that looks different in the picture)
  • Figure is flipped, so text is back to front.

The most important message in all of this is that figures appearing as part of a document should be considered at every stage of the editorial process. They should not be dismissed as being mere design elements, or someone else’s responsibility. When authors and editors ensure that figures and text work together effectively, they are a powerful tool for communication.

Liz Jones has been an editor since 1998, and has worked on thousands of projects, involving millions of words and a whole host of other variables. She specialises in highly illustrated non-fiction for a range of clients, and also works as a commissioning editor on the CIEP information team.

 


Photo credits: flowers by Edward Howell; chart by Isaac Smith, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.